Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Best Dead Tours?

By Blair Jackson

Finding a consensus on almost anything in the Grateful Dead world is a daunting proposition. There are as many opinions about the “best” shows or tours as there are Dead Heads. Each of us has his or her own prejudices about songs, tours and eras based on a million different factors, from personal experiences at shows to associations we have with specific songs and myriad other circumstances that affect what we like and dislike.

What got me thinking about this was writing essays over the past year about a couple of tours that nearly everyone seems to hold in high regard: Europe ’72 and the spring ’77 East, Midwest and South jaunt. The June ’74 Wall of Sound tour has many true believers, as does the short Midwest tour in February ’73. (I’m with ya on both!) Once you get beyond the ’70s, however, there are a certain number of Heads who will automatically tune out any discussion of best tours—they believe that nothing post-Keith and Donna was up to the level of what came before. And jeez, better not even bring up the post-Brent era!

Personally, I loved every band lineup on some level, and I can find shows and tours I like in every year. OK, it gets a little tougher by ’93, and in ’94 and ’95 we’re talking about the best of a not-that-great lot. By that I mean, I can say that I believe the fall ’94 East Coast tour was the best of the year, but mostly in comparison to the wretchedness of so many shows earlier in the year. (In ’94 I turned down an offer to write a book called 30 Years Dead because I was so depressed after seeing two Madison Square Garden shows on that tour I was just lauding!) But I was never one of those guys worrying that the “Scarlet-Fire” I was seeing in 1991 wasn’t as good as ones I had on tape from ’77. Or the ’92 version of “Here Comes Sunshine” was inherently lame because it wasn’t jammed out the way it had been in ’73. I rarely met a “Scarlet-Fire” that didn’t thrill me to the core, and as for “Here Comes Sunshine”—I was happy any time I could hear that, in any form. (I can say the same thing about both in this post-Dead era.) During my time putting out The Golden Road magazine (1984-1993), I was attacked by some for liking too much and by others for occasionally being too critical. What can I say? I loved this band every step of my own journey with them (’69-’95) and, experientially speaking, never particularly favored one era over another.

So, getting back to the alleged subject at hand—best Dead tours—I will happily rattle off a few of my favorites from different eras. I will start in 1971, when Dead tours really start looking like organized excursions of a region more than they had previously, and we also have a solid body of tape evidence to evaluate.

Though my first serious burst of going to clusters of shows was in the winter-spring of ’71 — two Capitol Theatre (Port Chester), two Fillmore East, two Manhattan Center — it’s the fall ’71 tour — Keith’s first outing—that makes this list. (I saw the two Chicago shows.) You can truly hear the excitement and enthusiasm as the group absorbs this new instrumental voice, and the many songs that were introduced earlier in the year (and on the fall tour itself) begin to take on an unexpected richness that will become even more obvious on the Europe ’72 tour.

I’ll skip over ’73-’77 (pick a tour, almost any tour, and it’s got something to recommend it—yes, even ’76, which some Heads just don’t like), and mention the April ’78 tour of the South and Midwest. The playing is a little more ragged than the best of ’77, and you can feel Keith starting to drift away at times, but there are still many high points in most shows.

Stanley Mouse created
this poster for the
underrated Europe 1981

In 1980, all the attention goes to the three-set September-October shows at the Warfield in San Francisco, Saenger Performing Arts Center in New Orleans and Radio City in New York, but for my money some of the best shows of that year are the August-early September ’80 Midwest and East Coast shows. The Uptown (Chicago) run is my favorite and the Lewiston, Maine, concert is chock full o’ good stuff. A lot of the Warfield/Radio City material sounds pretty tame and tentative by comparison.

The September-October ’81 Europe tour doesn’t get the props it should in part because the tapes aren’t that great—the Rainbow (London) series sounds dry and oddly balanced and Bob’s guitar barely registers on many of the other shows (c’mon, Healy!). But the playing is frequently quite electrifying, and of course there are the three Melk Weg oddities from Amsterdam in the middle.

Maybe because I traveled to the late August, early September ’83 shows in Eugene, Boise and Santa Fe, I’ve always been partial to that Western tour, Portland through Manor Downs (Austin).

The Summer ’83 Western tour was a hot one.

Summer ’85, beginning with the Berkeley Greek 20th anniversary concerts in mid-June through Pittsburgh in early July, boasts several outstanding shows, as does the late August to mid-September tour that hit Red Rocks, Kaiser in Oakland and Chula Vista. All in all, ’85 is one of my favorite years.

So is 1988, and there I have to go with the mid-June to early July shows, incorporating fine outings at Alpine Valley, Saratoga and ending at Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine. (Surely 7/2 is release-worthy, no?)

Moving up a couple of years, the March/early April 1990 tour—particularly the stretch including Copps Coliseum in Ontario, Knickerbocker Arena in Albany (some of which became Dozin’ at the Knick) and Nassau Coliseum (Branford!)—is mostly killer (and was all multitracked. I’d buy a Nassau box!). And though the Europe ’90 tour was not universally great, there’s lots of good stuff in there.

I could see a box set featuring the best of the September 1991 Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden shows (that’s right, a compilation!), but the real gold in ’91 — with the Bruce Hornsby-Jerry dynamic in full bloom—is the June ’91 tour, which includes several favorites, including both Deer Creek concerts, the two Giants Stadium shows, Soldier Field (tops on my list) and Sandstone in Kansas. I luv me my ’91 Dead!

So, those are a few of my choices. What tours do you want to turn us onto?


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brian.michaelson's picture
Joined: Jun 15 2007
Tours or venues?

I'm a little limited here because I was never a TourHead, but I like Blair's idea of venue boxed sets. My pics are easy because I only attended shows at three venues. How about a boxed set from either Alpine Valley, Soldier Field, or the World Music Theatre in Chicago? That '81 Alpine Valley show was hot enough to make me Deadicated.

wilfredtjones's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
Fall '72 and mid to late '70

A vote for Fall '72. Exciting, almost torrid playing. Band on fire type playing. There's an s-load from mid to late '70 I'd almost give my right pinky to hear in sbd form (I said almost).

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
posted for Spacebrother, who's having issues posting

"Summer '87"

I'm surprised more people aren't raving about this particular tour. There are many significant reasons why it's so under rated including the Deads unexpected jump in commercial popularity mid-tour with the release of "In The Dark", Jerry's first post-coma Summer tour and many other points that make this tour unique. Starting from Alpine Valley (boy I sure wish I had soundboard recording of these three dates), Ontario, the Dylan and the Dead stadium run and ending with the County Fairgrounds shows with Carlos Santana sitting in.

6/26-28 Alpine Valley
6/30 Ontario
7/2 Silver Stadium
7/4 Foxboro w/ Dylan
7/6 Pittsburg w/ members of The Neville Brothers
7/7-8 Roanoke
7/10 JFK w/ Dylan
7/12 Giants w/Dylan
7/19 Autzen w/ Dylan
7/24 Oakland w/ Dylan
7/26 Anaheim w/ Dylan
8/11-13 Red Rocks (last time)
8/15-16 Telluride
8/18 Compton Terrace
8/20 Park West Utah
8/22-23 Angel's Camp w/ Santana sitting in

A uniformly strong tour all the way through.

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
de acuerdo i-gonzo

Apr. '71 would make one schweet box!

And Blair's mention of the beginning of Keith's tenure being really exciting ...
10/19 thru December (lots of shows) would be another I'd throw money at in the same way I did for Europe '72.

One day we'll be treated to more post-Europe '72 - what an enormous wealth of material from which to choose - since the time I acquired it from our Vinemaster, Sunshine Daydream, my Summers and Falls have become absolute Dead Solid Perfect bliss while driving about with a smile on my face. This project, of course, would dwarf the Europe '72 trunk - ay! bring it!!!

lamagonzo (not verified)
Best Dead Tour? Spring 71

Spring 71, stalking 16 year old girls in the Scranton Catholic Youth Center with Pig wailing "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl"

4/4.5,6/ Manhattan Center
4/7,8/ Boston Music Hall
4/10 Franklin & Marshall
4/12 Pitt Civic Arena
4/13 Catholic Youth Center
4/14 Bucknell
4/15 Aleghaney
4/17 Princeton
4/18 SUCNY Cortland
4/21 RI Auditorium (Best of the tour)
4/22 Bangor Auditorium
4/24 Duke
4/ Closing of thge Fillmore East (Ladies & Gentleman)

Charlie Miller, can you make me a box for a price?

( & ) = }

skwimite's picture
Joined: Feb 17 2008

I never did the tour thing and after the '70's only I saw them occasionally in the '80's , the Earthquake benefit in Oakland '89 being the last, which is why I really appreciate this blog. You've listed a bunch of years and dates that are apparently worthy of attention. Beyond the aforementioned "consensus" years, I've never explored the 80's or '90's with much interest. Thanks.

Joined: Dec 8 2008
Fall 1989

With the combination of "new" tunes, SOTM and Take You Home, Etc. New songs and old favorites make for a great recipe. The return of Dark Star, Death Don't and Attics.
I also think; Jerry and Bob, had really started to get a handle on the MIDI system. So the communication between band members seemed really fresh with the chance to engage each other with new toys.

The shows from Shoreline through Oakland's New Years should not to be overlooked.

Joined: Nov 1 2010
mrs hippy

i know we're talking about tours but my fave stand-alone, one-off show still has to be englishtown, nj 9/3/77!!!!!

dajokr's picture
Joined: May 1 2010

Dear Blair,

Your blog post is making me miss the Road Trips series. Highlights from each of the tours you mentioned would make splendid releases. And to silence the 'knuckleheads', Rhino could get the Band to recant the policy of taking shows of when one song from the show is released commercially. Just sayin'.

That being said, the next full tour box should be Fall '73. Otherwise, let's get to work on the 'Grateful Dead Movie Super Deluxe Edition' and release the full run from Oct '74 in Blu-Ray/5.1 with all the video.


Joined: Jun 10 2007
Europe 90 and Spring 91

Maybe it was because I was on these tours, but I thought there were many fine moments - Berlin, Paris, Halloween London then onto Cap Center, Greensboro (longest Eyes ever!), and Orlando. Even the 90 New Years run in between seemed pretty sweet at the time. I guess that's the thing - it was all pretty awesome while it was happening. And even though you knew it might not compare to what had been played in the 60's or 70's, hearing it again now, it actually WAS pretty hot!!!


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